THE VERY FIRST LICENSE PLATE IN THE UNITED STATES
When and where was the very first license plate issued or used in the United States? This question is about as difficult to answer as any analagous question regarding who had the first automobile or the first computer! The simplicity of the answer all depends on how you define the terms, in this instance "license" and "plate." The term "license plate" itself actually dates back many decades earlier to the early 1800s, most often in reference to city permits or tax tags issued to horse-drawn carriages and wagons, usually those operated for hire. Generally, these were very small, made of brass or copper, and contained just numbers. These kinds of plates continued to be issued well into the 20th century.
London (England) taxicabs had license plates as early as 1831. A newspaper article in the Atlas on October 23, 1831, reported that "On Tuesday, Mr. Woolley...was charged as one of a party, who having engaged the hackney-coach, 610, to take them to Drury Lane Theatre, had, on the way, entertained themselves by removing and carrying off the license plate. By this most silly trick, the coachman lost forty hours of probable employment." For this, Mr. Woolley was ordered to pay restitution! A London Nonconformist news article on June 23, 1858, mentioned ways of keeping the Sabbath day holy such as by not patronizing omnibus drivers who worked on Sundays. "The six-day cabs may be distinguished by the green plate on which their number is printed; and the seven-day, or those which run on Sundays, by the yellow license plate."
License plates for motorized vehicles are the subject of our focus and therefore must act as the refined definition for our site's main purpose. To further understand this, we need to review the primary purposes of a motor vehicle license plate, which are as true today as they were in 1898:
The identification function has always been the most important because the speeds at which a motor vehicle could move are substantially faster than those of animal-drawn vehicles, whose average speed was 7 M.P.H., and are capable of inflicting far more damage. Accordingly, numbers had to be much larger than any plates used previously on wagons, bicycles, etc., because motor vehicles were that much harder to see and identify at fast speeds, and harder to apprehend. The very earliest plates, many of which had no fee at all, had numbers far bigger than anything heretofore seen, and this aspect of registration was among the most objectionable to early motorists. They felt that displaying a number plate would mar the appearance of their shiny new automobile, but more significantly, there was a strong sentiment that any requirement of displaying large numbers singled motorists out unfairly in the larger traffic pattern and branded them as likely to become criminals at any moment. If they had to pay a fee for this public humiliation, all the worse! That, coupled with the pervasive anti-automobile atmosphere and the fervor with which some police departments enforced speed limit laws against "scorchers", led to many creative ways around the proper display of plates, and a compliance rate as low as 10% in some locales such as Reno, Nevada, in 1915. Yet, license plates were the only effective tool in holding accountable the small minority of the motoring public who were reckless drivers, as evidenced by the improvements noted in the accident rate in Chicago in 1903, when license plates were finally required, and again in 1904, when the city took over issuance of them. Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of law-abiding motorists welcomed local and state legislation concerning speed and registration, and through automobile clubs, helped influence city and state officials to keep such regulations reasonable and not overly punitive.
The second basic function of license plates, taxation, started almost from the very beginning, but did not grow into its full significance until a few years later. The main purpose in registering a motor vehicle is to provide a mechanism by which the vehicle's owner can be traced and identified. Once a vehicle is registered, it need not be re-registered ever again unless the vehicle changes ownership or residence. In the earliest days, a registration fee was sometimes charged to recoup a city clerk's cost (in time, supplies and effort spent) in registering a vehicle, and in some cases to recover the material cost of the license plate itself, if the city issued one. But as more and more vehicles entered the market, and larger and faster automobiles hit the road, it became evident that the need for better roads had become a top priority. It was also soon recognized that heavier vehicles did more damage to roads than lighter ones, regardless of how little they were driven, so fee structures based on a vehicle's engine horsepower rating came into vogue starting in 1906 with New Jersey, while the registration of trucks as a separate category began in 1910 in Maryland.
Of far greater significance, however, was the development of the concept of annual re-registration in about 1906, a departure from the original idea of perpetual registration. Under the perpetual system, after a few years, many of the numbers recorded in state registration books became obsolete or out of service, slowing and complicating the looking up of records. This was due to the common practice of trading vehicles and/or moving to another city or state without informing the issuing authority. The shift to annual registration, valid for only one year, allowed states to keep much better track of the current ownership of vehicles, and had the happy (intended) side effect of creating a steady flow of dependable income into state treasuries for highway construction and maintenance. Logically, this change directly led to the issuance of new license plates every year, usually with the date displayed. This practice started with Pennsylvania's operator's plates in 1906 (itself an outgrowth of the Philadelphia 1903-06 annual dated operator's plates) and the Massachusetts and New Jersey registration plates of 1908.
Ontario was the first to require annual registration in 1903, with British Columbia following in 1904 and Washington State in 1905. New Jersey was the first to switch from perpetual to annual registration on July 1, 1906. All of these continued with the same perpetual plates, however.
But we haven't yet begun to answer the question of the very first license plate. The distinction of the first state-issued plate on July 23, 1903, easily goes to Massachusetts for its "MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER" issue (and in Canada, the Province of Ontario just a month later on August 28, 1903). And the city of Philadelphia issued their first plates, dated 1903, just a few months earlier in February 1903. Finally, the first state registration law, which required owner-supplied initial plates, is readily confirmed as that of New York on April 25, 1901. While these foregoing "firsts" are well-known, the debate of which city or governmental entity before 1901 was truly first is not so readily resolved. The most interesting part of the answer is that it probably wasn't any city in particular, or even any city at all, that took first honors. It was an obscure city park commission that issued and required the use of the nation's very first motor vehicle license plates.
FAIRMOUNT PARK, PHILADELPHA, 1900
Why a city park? To help envision this seemingly unlikely scenario, one must pretend to step back in time to 1898 in any major U.S. city such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia or San Francisco. You've just purchased a new horseless carriage at great expense and are anxious to test out the capabilities of this new technology, The city streets are not in very good condition and are congested with pedestrians, bicycles, trolleys and teams of horse-drawn conveyances of all sorts, which might become frightened or move unpredictably when your automobile approaches. You can't drive very fast due to mud, trolley tracks and slow traffic, not to mention your friendly local police force. You could drive further out into the country on farm roads, but again, road conditions might be very unfavorable, and if you had a flat tire or mechanical breakdown, you could be far from any help. But city parks were ideal - they were conveniently located right in town, their "drives" (roads) were not only well-maintained, they were curvy and scenic in comparison to block after block of straight city streets and frequent intersections. Commercial traffic was usually prohibited, meaning you were not likely to encounter large or slow-moving wagon teams.
There was only one problem: A few horse-and-buggy owners complained to park administrators about speeding cars scaring their animals. It turns out that many of the buggy drivers were women who ventured to the park, sometimes with their children, to enjoy the serenity and natural beauty of the park while their husbands were at work. In a few cases, the drivers were inexperienced at handling their horses in the face of unexpected or sudden intrusions. Horses are sensitive animals and can react more to their driver's fear than the perceived threat itself. While the vast majority of horses across the country, whether in the city, country or park, adjusted well to the presence of automobiles, those few that didn't made big headlines when an accident occurred, helping to perpetuate a certain paranoia and pervasive resistance to these new-fangled machines.
Park boards solved the problem by either banning automobiles from the park altogether, such as in New York's Central Park, or by issuing permits for automobiles entering the park to limit the number of them. The only remaining question is which city's park commission was the first to require the display of numbers? Boston issued its first permit for an automobile on September 15, 1898, but numbers were not required to be displayed until later, probably 1901. San Francisco's Golden Gate Park Commission did not begin giving examinations, licensing drivers, and issuing plates until April 1901. In Philadelphia, the Fairmount Park Commission passed a requirement for permits for automobiles on October 13, 1899. A year later, license plates were issued and required on all motor vehicles effective October 15, 1900. The first license plates - undated white-on-black leather affairs - were born! No fee was charged, so annual reports don't show statistics of how many permits were issued, but newspaper reports often describe details. In Fairmount Park, over 50 plates were issued in early October 1900 just prior to the regulation taking effect.
At the risk of sounding simplistic, the system of motor vehicle identification worked so well in city parks that city leaders, especially in Philadelphia, saw the benefits of applying similar automobile licensing to all streets city-wide. But this required successful passage of a city ordinance, which introduced two new elements into the process: Influence from more motorists, and inexperience on the part of city leaders unfamiliar with the capabilities of this new technology. While this chronology in Philadelphia doesn't represent every city's exact progression, it does accurately represent the general trends taking place during this era.